The French Connection

1971. William Friedkin
Monday 2/4, 730pm, Arclight Sherman Oaks

I consider myself ashamed that I had never seen this film before this week and although it’s not really worthy of the 1971 Academy Award for Best Picture, it’s a brilliant entry to the cops and robbers genre. I thought I knew everything I needed to know about this movie beforehand and fully expected a gritty, action film with spectacular, fast-paced chases and a scenery-chewing performance from Gene Hackman as a racist, obsessive cop. Happily, that’s not the case and while the entire film is pretty much a chase scene, very little of it is fast paced.

Gene Hackman and Roy Scheider play partners at the Brooklyn Police Department narcotics division and while it is established very early which is the “good cop” and which is the “bad cop”, the characters aren’t exaggerated thusly for the rest of the film. In fact, their relationship is the only one that affords some kind of resonance for the audience since relationships clearly weren’t what was on Friedkin’s mind. This is a movie about cops chasing bad guys and exactly what that process entails. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a movie with so many stakeouts and so many scenes where characters simply keep tabs on other characters. I literally felt like I knew what staying up until 3am watching a car felt like after seeing the film and I felt the frustration of standing in sub-zero New York temperatures for hours waiting for a suspect to leave a hotel. I could watch the scene where Hackman and Rey hop on and off the subway cars for hours. And when the chases actually do speed up, to the point where Hackman pursues a runaway N train, I was not disappointed from the hype.

It’s totally unoriginal to hail these early 70’s films as “gritty” so I’m gonna search for another word. The thesaurus is no help really, except the word “essence” pops up and that got me thinking. When people say that a movie is “gritty” I think they are just surprised that it doesn’t look like anyone took the time to map out shots or set up lights. In reality, they did of course but they weren’t doing so for any reason other than to capture the essence of the scene. The essentials. When it’s dark, it’s really dark and the camera captures every moment with an eye for information, not detail.

Aside from the cinematography, the score, the editing and especially the sound are all terrific. The acting is fine with Hackman and Scheider putting in the best performances but I’m not quite sure how Hackman walked away with the Academy Award. His character isn’t much more than a brute and he plays it well but surely there must have been some meatier work done that year. Malcolm McDowell in A Clockwork Orange springs to mind immediately. The only time the film comes grinding to any sort of halt is when the gangsters appear by themselves and chit chat about their big plans. Whether it’s the actors faults or not, the scenes seem terribly scripted and completely stand out from the rest of the film.

And then there’s the ending. I won’t say much about it except that it was a complete surprise and one of the most satisfying moments of my experience watching it. In a split second, when the audience is tightening their seatbelts in anticipation of what’s to come, Friedkin shows just how futile and profitless all that hard work can sometimes be. It’s almost heartbreaking in a way I never thought could be possible when the standard shootout scene begins to develop moments earlier.

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